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Aging, Global Health, In the News, Public Health, Research

As life expectancy rises worldwide, many are living longer with illness and disability

10812180384_18496a55f3_zGood news: Average life expectancy has continued to climb over the past two decades. The downside is that those extra years are often marked by chronic disease or disability, according to a new analysis published in the Lancet.

In the study, an international team of researchers examined fatal and nonfatal health loss across countries in an effort to help direct global-health policies to improve longevity and quality of life regardless of where a person lives.

HealthDay reports:

The analysis of data from 188 countries found that life expectancy for both sexes increased from just over 65 years in 1990 to 71.5 years in 2013, while healthy life expectancy rose from almost 57 years to slightly more than 62 years.

“The world has made great progress in health, but now the challenge is to invest in finding more effective ways of preventing or treating the major causes of illness and disability,” study author Theo Vos, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in a journal news release.

The rise in overall life expectancy is due to significant declines in illness and death caused by HIV/AIDS and malaria, the researchers said, along with major advances in combating infectious diseases, nutritional deficiencies, and mother and baby health problems.

Earlier this year, Laura Carstensen, PhD, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, spoke at the Big Data in Biomedicine conference about modern society’s gains in life expectancy and called it an “unprecedented” time in history. During her presentation, she presented data on the current aging population and what aging might look like in the future.

Previously: A look at aging and longevity in this “unprecedented” time in history, “Are we there yet?” Exploring the promise, and the hype, of longevity research and Living loooooooonger: A conversation on longevity
Photo by jennie-o

Global Health, Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Public Health

Exploring the benefits of pursuing anthropology and medicine

Exploring the benefits of pursuing anthropology and medicine

3470650293_60b27d6539_zAs a PhD student in medical anthropology, and having come from a very “medical family,” pursuing an MD has been a kind of shadow-dream of mine. For a year or two in high school, I was convinced that neonatology was the path for me; now I’m a doula and research the culture of childbirth.

Some people do live the double dream, and I recently interviewed two of them: Jenny Miao Hua at the University of Chicago and Rosalind Franklin University’s Chicago Medical School, and Stanford’s Amrapali Maitra, both of whom are medical anthropologists pursuing PhD/MD degrees. (Amrapali has brought an anthropological perspective to Scope through our SMS Unplugged series.)

The two came to their joint degree from different sides: Hua was an anthropology student interested in Chinese medicine and the body, while Maitra was enrolled in medical school and became serious about understanding the social context of illness. Each intends to pursue internal medicine, and each, incidentally, has family connections in the site she chose to research. We talked shop for quite a while, and what I found most interesting was their thoughts on what anthropology brings to clinical practice:

Maitra: On the broadest level, anthropology gives you an immense empathy for your patients and allows you to see them as people. It sounds cliché, but with the focus on efficiency and evidence-based medicine that has taken over American biomedical practice, even the most kind and caring individual can lose [his or her] empathy. And the kind of empathy you get from anthropology is not just sympathizing with the person, but really understanding where they’re coming from, historically and because of their life position: why they live in a certain neighborhood or have a certain diet. It allows you to think creatively about what they’re able to do or not do in pursuing their own health.

Hua: With anthropological training, students understand the various ways pathologies are dependent on larger socioeconomic forces. As a practicing physician, the person who comes through the door is never a textbook patient, so within a very short amount of time you have to pick up on this deep history, and when you’re not careful you end up stereotyping and profiling. Anthropology brings a more nuanced way of thinking about patients: they’re not just uniform biological entities, but hybrids of biology, society, and culture.

Maitra: I’ve seen so many clinic visits where I can tell, as the anthropologist in the room, that the attending physician and patient just have completely different agendas. There are simple questions like those Arthur Kleinman has laid out, asking what about the pain bothers her, why she thinks she’s having it, what she hopes to get out of the encounter. I see some doctors use these, and their visits go so much better. They’re able to build an alliance with their patient that’s very therapeutic.

That’s anthropology on the individual level, but on another level it allows you to recognize that certain things are trends. It allows you to think systematically about different kinds of structural violence. For example, why is it that so many people whose occupation is picking strawberries come in with knee and back pain issues? Treating pain is not going to solve the problem. It’s about getting to the root of the occupational hazards of being a farm worker.

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Global Health, Health Policy, Stanford News

E-cigarettes a growing cause for concern in the developing world

E-cigarettes a growing cause for concern in the developing world

11505926173_7be7ca343b_zIt is a common misconception that e-cigarettes are a problem only in wealthy nations, say two Stanford global health researchers in a commentary published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In the piece, co-authors Michele Barry, MD, FACP and Andrew Chang, MD, call attention to the widespread availability of e-cigarettes in the developing world and a growing concern over the potential health implications unique to low- and middle-income countries.

Chang, an internal medicine resident in Stanford’s Global Health track planning to specialize in cardiology, has been closely tracking the conversation around global tobacco control, but noticed e-cigarettes have been largely absent from the discussion. With support from Barry, director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health, Chang dug deeper and found that while U.S. health officials and researchers have been grappling with uncertainties around e-cigarette regulation and health impacts, the rise of e-cigarettes has in fact become a global threat.

The authors point to a 2014 survey from the World Health Organization suggesting that already, more than half of the world’s population is living in countries where e-cigarettes – or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) – are available. Public awareness in many of these countries is high and the devices are cheap.

But in some parts of the world, notably Africa and South Asia, there is little to no data on e-cigarette awareness and usage trends. This is of particular concern, say Barry and Chang, as regions like Africa and South Asia represent vast potential markets and are likely to be hit hardest by the growth of e-cigarettes.

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Global Health, Health Costs, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Research

Chinese clinicians use inpatient visits to compensate for drug revenue loss

Chinese clinicians use inpatient visits to compensate for drug revenue loss

For decades, many doctors in rural China boosted their incomes by both recommending and selling drugs, often at steep markups. With mounting evidence of overprescription, in 2009 the Chinese national government largely banned markups, undermining doctors’ financial incentive to over-provide them. Instead, the government provided physicians with a subsidy to compensate for the loss in profits.

Since then, a number of scholars have examined the effects of the policy. But no one has looked at the unintended consequences — until now.

In a study published today in Health Affairs, a team of researchers found the policy had the unintended consequence of boosting hospitalizations and the provision of inpatient care.

“When you have a regulation that affects pricing, it’s like pushing a balloon in in one place — then it pops out in another,” said Grant Miller, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for International Development, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and an associate professor of medicine. The first author is Hongmei Yi, PhD, program manager of FSI’s Rural Education Action Program in China.

The team, which also includes Scott Rozelle, a senior fellow at FSI, examined data from rural Chinese clinics between 2007 and 2011. They found clinics that were most heavily reliant on drug revenues before the policy change more than doubled their provision of inpatient services when compared with the clinics least reliant on drug revenues before the change. These centers also experienced little change in revenue, which indicates they were able to offset the losses of drug revenue with income from inpatient stays.

Based on their analysis, the team also believes that this increase is not driven by demand for inpatient services, Miller said.

By also surveying and conducting follow-up phone interviews with patients, the researchers also found some evidence that clinics may be artificially boosting their inpatient tallies to increase their compensation from the government.

He said he was not surprised the policy had unexpected ramifications. “Humans are adaptive creatures and doctors are not categorically different than the rest of us. If you take away a source of livelihood, it’s not surprising they found another way to make it up.”

Rural primary care doctors in China “are also not at the top of the economic pyramid,” Miller said.

Health-care reform is on the national agenda in China and it’s possible that this study could inform future policies, Miller said. “It raises a much broader set of questions about how you design in a more holistic way a proper set of incentives for providers,” he said.

Previously: Seeking solutions to childhood anemia in China, Better school lunches — in China and Stanford India Health Policy Initiative fellows are in Mumbai — come follow along

Global Health, Medical Education, Surgery

Bringing surgical training to female medical students in Zimbabwe

Bringing surgical training to female medical students in Zimbabwe

IMG_1468Earlier this summer, I shared the story of how two pioneering women are challenging the status quo in Zimbabwe by saying it’s okay for women take up careers in surgery. Now, this professor-student duo – Stanford surgeon Sherry Wren, MD, and surgeon-in-training Annete Bonigwe Moyo – have launched the first surgical skills training for female medical students at the University of Zimbabwe’s College of Health Sciences.

For a girl growing up in Zimbabwe like Moyo, expressing interest in surgery can be met with ridicule and doubt. But when Moyo met Wren two years ago, Moyo was inspired to change this perception.

She founded DREAM (Dedicated to Reach, Empower And Mentor women in surgery) to empower her female peers and increase participation in the profession. Wren has been a core advisor since the organization’s inception, helping to achieve their mission by providing mentorship and new educational opportunities for the women of DREAM.

“Surgery is a core subject in our medical undergraduate curriculum requiring the acquisition of cognitive diagnostic demands, as well as procedural skills,” Moyo, a senior medical student at the University of Zimbabwe, told me. “However, in spite of the advent of skills laboratories and simulators, undergraduate trainees are barely exposed to the procedural aspect of training. For many graduating medical students in these circumstances, surgery is a far-off thought, and few have the confidence to carry out basic surgical procedures as they go through their internship.”

IMG_1473In an effort to help medical students translate the knowledge gained in the classroom to the operating table, Wren recently facilitated a basic surgical skills training session hosted by DREAM – a first for medical students in Zimbabwe. The training was attended by 21 third, fourth and fifth year MBChB students – all of them women.

Moyo reported to me:

[Wren] began the session by helping the women appreciate standard operating room etiquette and protocol, sterile procedures, sharps and fluid safety, scrubbing, gowning and gloving. For most of the students present, this was the first time they were being walked through these important basic principles of surgery.

Excitement grew as [Wren] began teaching the women some basic surgical sutures on sterile towels… Soon the ladies were ready to apply their newly learned skills on loops of bowel procured to give a more real feel to the exercise. It was amazing to see how quickly what was initially a barely discernible pattern of uneven sutures transformed into neat even sutures…

By the end of the 3-hour session, the timid girl who was clueless as to how to handle the most basic of surgical instruments, or let alone tie a surgical knot, had become a confident future surgeon raring to do whatever it took to realize her dream.

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Global Health, Medical Education

A behind the scenes look at the Stanford-ABC News Fellowship in Media and Global Health

A behind the scenes look at the Stanford-ABC News Fellowship in Media and Global Health

Since arriving at Stanford, third-year medical student Michael Nedelman has pursued his passion for film by producing a number of documentaries, including projects about LGBT veterans experiences of trauma and recovery and health-care access in post-typhoon Philippines. This year, he is embarking on a new journey as the 2015-2016 Stanford-ABC News Global Health Media Fellow where he will explore how multiple media platforms can have a significant impact on global health work.

Nedelman is chronicling his fellowship experience on his blog. Currently, he is working for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Delhi as part of team responsible for the organization’s media output for the Southeast Asia region. His first entry focuses on the role of media at the WHO and includes a podcast with Vismita Gupta-Smith, a public information and advocacy officer at the WHO in Southeast Asia. Listen to their full conversation above.

Previously: After Haiyan: Stanford med student makes film about post-typhoon Philippines, Stanford Storytellers: Medical students write a children’s book to comfort and educate and Stanford med student discusses his documentary on LGBT vets’ health

Global Health, HIV/AIDS, Immunology, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

HIV study in Kenyan women: Diversity in a single immune-cell type flags likelihood of getting infected

HIV study in Kenyan women: Diversity in a single immune-cell type flags likelihood of getting infected

virally infected cellsWhen it comes to immune cells, “it takes all kinds” isn’t too bad a description of what makes for the best composition of our fighting force for warding off viruses, bacteria and incipient tumors. But in a study just published in Science Translational Medicine, Stanford infectious-disease immunologist Catherine Blish, MD, PhD, and her colleagues have found, unexpectedly, that high diversity in the overall population of one particular type of immune cells strongly correlates with an increased likelihood of subsequent infection by HIV.

The investigators had figured that diversity in so-called natural killer cells, or NK cells, would be a strength, not a detriment. “Our hypothesis was wrong,” Blish (much of whose research focuses on NK cells) told me. In this study,  it was higher, rather than lower, diversity in this immune-cell population that turned out to be associated with increased HIV susceptibility.

NK cells, fierce white blood cells that help fight viruses and tumors, harbor various combinations of receptors on their surface. Some receptors recognize signs of our other cells’ normalcy, while others recognize signs that a cell is stressed — due, say, to viral infection or cancerous mutation. On recognizing their targeted features on other cells’ surfaces, an NK cell’s “normalcy” receptors tend to inhibit it, while its stress-recognizing receptors activate it.

All told, NK cells can have many thousands of different combinations of these receptors on their surfaces, with each combination yielding a slightly different overall activation threshold. At birth, our NK cells are pretty similar to one another. But as they acquire life experience – largely from viral exposure, Blish thinks – they increasingly diverge in the specific combinations of receptors they carry on their surfaces.

From my news release on the study:

In order to assess the impact of NK-cell diversity on adult humans’ viral susceptibility, Blish and her associates turned to blood samples that had been drawn during the Mama Salama Study, a longitudinal study of just over 1,300 healthy … Kenyan women. [T]he researchers carried out a precise analysis of NK cells in the women’s blood and observed a strong positive correlation between the diversity of a woman’s NK cell population and her likelihood of becoming infected with HIV.

This correlation held up despite the women’s being statistically indistinguishable with respect to age, marital status, knowledge of sexual partners’ HIV status, history of trading sex for money or goods, sexually transmitted disease status or reported frequency of recent unprotected sex.

And the NK-diversity-dependent difference in these women’s likelihood of HIV infection was huge. From my release:

Those with the most NK-cell diversity were 10 times as likely as those with the least diversity to become infected. A 10-fold risk increase based solely on NK-cell diversity is far from negligible, said Blish. “By way of comparison, having syphilis increases the risk of contracting HIV two- to four-fold, while circumcised men’s HIV risk is reduced by a factor of 2.5 or 3,” she said.

These surprising findings  could spur the development of blood tests capable of predicting individuals’ susceptibility to viral infection.

Previously: Study: Pregnancy causes surprising changes in how the immune system responds to the flu, Revealed: Epic evolutionary struggle between reproduction and immunity to infectious disease and Our aging immune systems are still in business, but increasingly thrown out of balance
Photo by NIAID

Global Health, Health Policy, Stanford News

Stanford India Health Policy Initiative fellows are in Mumbai – come follow along

Stanford India Health Policy Initiative fellows are in Mumbai - come follow along

India Health Policy students

Today, I’m on my way to India to join the 2015 Stanford India Health Policy Initiative fellows. These fellows are part of a program that designs and conducts collaborative student projects focused on generating new, on-the-ground insight into the factors that distinguish health-delivery success and failure. This summer, the four fellows are Mark Walsh, a rising senior who is majoring in economics; Pooja Makhijani, a second-year medical student; and Lina Vadlamani and Hadley Reid, both rising seniors who are majoring in human biology.

The students are spending seven weeks investigating the pharmaceutical networks in urban Mumbai in an effort to understand how informal providers interface with these networks and whether it impacts how providers practice, prescribe and dispense medication. The fellows are traveling house to house to investigate community preferences for medications.

We’ll be updating this Storify page with stories on their time there, and we’ll be tweeting from @StanfordHP (and using the hashtag#StanfordHealthIndia) over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll follow along.

Beth Duff-Brown is communications manager for the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary and Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR).

Photo, of Walsh, Makhijani and Vadlamani, courtesy of CHP/PCOR

Events, Global Health, Haiti, Medicine and Literature, Patient Care, Stanford News

Physician writers share a “global perspective on healing”

Physician writers share a "global perspective on healing"

6319607736_156bcef31e_zWhen I saw that an event called “Medicine Around the World: Healing from a Global Perspective” was taking place on campus, I thought it would be right up my alley as a medical anthropologist.

The event, sponsored by Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse program and the Pegasus Physician Writers group, was a reading in which physicians shared some beautiful pieces they had written about their experiences providing medical services across the globe, including Haiti, Mexico, Austria, and Vietnam. The musings were less about culture than they were about poverty, conflict, disasters, and war, and what it’s like to seek health and healing in such overwhelming circumstances.

All five physicians’ writings brought to life a difficult scene. Julia Huemer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, wrote an aching piece about interviewing a young Somalian refugee in an Austrian winter just before Christmas. She conveys the utter incapacity of her survey to capture his experience, and an uneasy awareness that he is the one doing her a favor, indulging her intrusion. Here is a teenager too childlike to carry the weight of adulthood, yet who carries it with more grounded grace than many adults. Her holiday, once marked by stressful emptiness, is not transformed in any heartwarming sense, but at least becomes more heavy, more real.

Ali Tahvildari, MD, a radiologist, composed a “Ghazal for Global Health,” a poetic form used to convey love, loss, and longing, in this case pleading for the privileged to care about foreign suffering. Mali Mann, MD, a psychiatrist, chronicled her experience being one of “los medicos volodores” who fly to Mexico, where she works with orphaned children suffering severe emotional traumas. Henry Ward Trueblood, MD, a trauma surgeon, read an excerpt from his forthcoming book about being a surgeon in Vietnam during the war, where he worked in a tragically understaffed civilian hospital. The extreme environment pushed him to test the limits of his surgical competence, which both challenged him to grow and taught him to respect his own limits when he was way out of his league.

The piece that brought in the most “culture” in a classic anthropological sense was that of William Meffert, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon who read a fictional account of being trapped in a collapsed building in Haiti while on a medical mission after the earthquake. In it, he grappled with how religion – a Haitian mix of voodoo and Catholicism – played a vital role in the life of his assistant. As an atheist, the protagonist vacillated between being baffled, annoyed, and comforted in a way he couldn’t quite grasp; in a way that circled between dream and reality, the supernatural was a means toward healing.

Previously: Stanford doctor-author bring historic figure Jonas Salk to life, Stanford med student chronicles his experiences working in rural Kenya, Surgeon-author: “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex”, “Write what you know”: Anesthesiologist-author Rick Novak discusses his debut novel, For a group of Stanford doctors, writing helps them “make sense” of their experiences, and Exploring global health through historical literature
Photo by Hanna Sorensson

Global Health, Health Policy, Research, Stanford News

Health aid may be allocated efficiently, but not always optimally

Health aid may be allocated efficiently, but not always optimally

malaria bed net

Foreign aid to the public-health sectors of developing countries often appears to be allocated backwards: The global burden of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes or heart disease is enormous – yet these disorders receive little health aid.

By comparison, the global burden of HIV is much smaller, yet it receives more health aid than any other single disease.

An alignment in health aid could best be improved by focusing on malaria and TB, especially where addressing those diseases is highly cost effective

So will a wholesale reversal in health aid priorities improve global health? The answer, according to a new study by Stanford researchers, is that if the goal is to maximize the health benefits from each donor dollar, health aid is actually allocated pretty well.

Still, reallocating foreign aid to step up the fight against malaria and tuberculosis (TB) could lead to greater overall health improvements in developing nations. And it could be done without spending more money, the researchers show.

For their work, Eran Bendavid, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and a core faculty member at the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, and three researchers focused on 20 countries that received the greatest total amount of aid between 2008 and 2011, a period of historically unprecedented growth in health aid. The 20 countries – from Afghanistan to Zambia – received $58 billion out of the $103.2 billion in recorded health aid disbursements to 170 countries between 2001 and 2011.

“What we found, somewhat to our surprise, is that in nearly all countries, more aid was flowing to finance priorities with more cost-effective options,” Bendavid, said in an interview. “That is partly because more aid was flowing to the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases such as HIV and malaria, and their management can be relatively inexpensive.”

Bendavid, an infectious disease physician, added: “Even though the burden of non-communicable diseases is high and growing, addressing chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease is, broadly, more costly than the unfinished infectious disease agenda.”

In their paper, Bendavid and his co-authors write that the “data suggest that [an alignment in health aid] could best be improved by focusing on malaria and TB, especially where addressing those diseases is highly cost effective.” Gains would come from taking some aid earmarked for HIV or maternal, newborn or child health, and putting it toward programs to treat these two disorders, they say.

But it’s also crucial, they conclude, to further study the consequences of realignment of donor funds.

This paper appears in the July issue of Health Affairs.

Beth Duff-Brown is communications manager for the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary and Outcomes Research.

Previously: Foreign health care aid delivers the goods and Foreign aid for health extends life, saves children, Stanford study finds
Photo, of a mother and son under an insecticide-treated bed net in Tanzania, by the Gates Foundation

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